Age Before Beauty

Josko

Josko

He was born Josko Ridos on March 6, 1932 in Slovakia to Lutheran parents. He was the middle child of three sisters and two other brothers. At around the age of 14, his father sent him out of the home to fend for himself as the family was too poor to continue taking care of him. A forestry enterprise was literally broached to take young Josko, otherwise known as Jozef, and give him work as a lumberjack.

Westerners may likely look at that today as being extremely harsh, and not something that any of us could possibly do as parents but we haven’t walked in those shoes. No matter how painful it must have been, it was accepted that at that age Josko would have to make decisions for himself. That’s what he did, and from talking to Josko I get a strong sense that although he didn’t see his family for four years under the circumstances he never stopped loving them.

After World War II, and brutal impact by the Nazis, the Soviet Union was able to extend their influence into Slovakia by 1948. This was a great concern for Josko as he has always been a man of spiritual faith (at some point in his life he converted to Catholicism but has never refuted the validity of other’s dissenting religions), and Communists are notoriously atheist. It was only a matter of time before a friend of his broached him on a plan to escape. The intent was to make their way through the Czech Republic and East Germany which had been torn away from the west in 1949.

Carrying saws and other forestry tools that a sympathizer provided them in the Czech Republic, and stern advice to “act natural” and “never show fear” to the police, the escapees were able to convince the authorities that they were harmless young itinerants looking for work. That’s how they had made it into the East Germany.

Josko only knew enough of the German language to get him by, and getting into the west proved much riskier. At that time in 1950, all that stood between them at their impending crossing point in the east and freedom in the west was a manned guard tower. The guard was armed, and had orders to shoot to kill anyone who tried to cross the border. At night, Josko and his friend made a run for it.

Likely spotting the defectors breaking from the tree line with night vision equipment, the tower guard opened fire on the pair. A hail of bullets struck the ground all around them. The runners crouched and zigzagged as they tried to sprint towards the border. By the grace of God, they made it. Josko never forgot the sensation of a hot round whizzing past his right earlobe. The things that people will, and must do to achieve freedom.

Josko spent 18 months in a West German refugee camp. The next phase of their mission to be free was to go to Australia. Josko’s friend was successful but because Josko only had up to a grade 8 education, the Australian government denied his access. Next stop the Canadian Embassy.

Every Canadian knows that in this first world country, you’ll be worked and taxed to death, so once Embassy and customs officials took stock of Josko’s big strong hands and overall fitness, he was granted entrance. Josko credits the pulp and paper firm Abitibi for paying his boat ticket. He arrived in Canada in 1951. He pretty much came straight to Hamilton.

Josko had briefly been to Edmonton and Winnipeg but he put down roots in Hamilton. He had to go to night school to learn English. He hated it. It was so hard but his fluency did come, and far more due to his talking with other Anglophone Canadians daily than because of the language course.

Every Hamiltonian knows that the city’s history is locked into its heavy industrial past. Josko entered the trades. He became a master plasterer and by 1958 he was able to start his own business. That’s only seven years after immigrating to this nation broke, with limited education, barely able to speak, read and write English and virtually exiled from his homeland. He did not let grass grow under his feet. Josko is a fine example of all those who helped to build this city, in fact this entire country; industrious and salt of the earth. For the next fifteen to twenty years he worked for himself accepting contracts to finish houses of new surveys all over Hamilton, the West Field Heritage Village and many parts of Southern Ontario.

It was in the Hammer where he would meet his future wife Mary, quite literally in a church on Mary Street downtown. Mary was born and raised in Winnipeg to Slovakian parents.

I suspect that the culmination of coming from a large family and being sent out of it at an early age is why Josko has been an extremely family oriented soul. He and Mary were blessed with three daughters and a son. Working six days a week and going to church every Sunday, Josko was hardly ever home but he supported his family. Now, his children have gone on to have children of their own, and Josko speaks ever so highly and lovingly of them all. I’ve watched him interact with them. He’s introduced my wife and me to some of them. He is a very proud papa.

Years after escaping the Communists, Josko found out that the police outright lied to his family back in Slovakia. They were all told that their beloved son and brother was killed while trying to defect to the west. In despair, they held a funeral for him and buried an empty casket. It was no doubt a time of tremendous joy when he was able to get a letter to them, letting them know that he was alive and well in Canada.

Twenty years after defecting, Josko was able to go back to Slovakia and visit his family for a short while. Of course, knowing that he had Canadian citizenship and passport by then, it was not in the interest of the Slovak police to do him any harm. As though he was a high profile enemy of the state, however, the paranoid police did follow his every move while he was there.

This is the portrait I made of Josko Ridos at age 81 as a resident of the Buchanan neighbourhood. He has never been famous but has lived to accomplish great things through sheer determination. It really should go without saying that I am tremendously honoured to have met this extraordinary Hamiltonian and his beautiful family.

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11 thoughts on “Age Before Beauty

    • It’s been said many times that you never know who you’re going to meet in life or what some stranger passing you by has experienced in their life. That fascinates me to no end, and looking into such aspects of life goes to the heart of this project.

      It is such a tremendous reward when someone is willing to open up and share such experiences with me. If anyone ever needs another resaon to not take their fellow human being for granted, revelations of other’s lives like this should be it.

  1. A good, noble, courages and selfless man in his own right. Those things he went through, so many of us will never go through in our lifetime. My hat’s off to him for going through such hard times and coming out the other end tall and strong.

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